Are Saudi Arabia’s “Sudairi Seven” consolidating power?

Earlier today, or late last night if you’re in the US, there came a pretty big announcement out of Saudi Arabia:

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz sacked his younger half-brother as crown prince and appointed his nephew, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, as the new heir apparent, state television said.

King Salman also appointed his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as deputy crown prince, and replaced veteran foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal with the kingdom’s Washington ambassador Adel al-Jubeir.

There are lots of implications here, many of which have to do with the arcane inner dynamics of the Saudi royal family. This may be evidence that the 79-year old Salman is not in the best of health and wants to arrange the succession to his liking ASAP, but on the other hand it demonstrates that Salman is in control right now, or at least that Muqrin isn’t/wasn’t. Maybe Salman decided it was finally time for the crown to pass to the next generation of Saudi princes, particularly if the kingdom plans on being locked in some kind of struggle for regional dominance with Iran for the indefinite future. But the specific reason why Muqrin had to go may have something to do with the faction within the dynasty called the “Sudairi Seven,” and a move to consolidate their control over the kingdom. I don’t want to oversell this, because it’s speculative and because it’s not like this is the first time Muqrin has been fired by one of his half-brothers, so he may have his own issues. But it’s an interesting possibility.

The “Sudairi Seven” refers to a group of princes, all sons of the founder of the kingdom, Abdulaziz b. Saud (“Ibn Saud,” d. 1953), and his eighth wife, Hussa al-Sudairi (d. 1969): Fahd, Sultan, Abdul Rahman, Nayef, Turki, Salman, and Ahmed. It’s been theorized that these seven full brothers have been operating as a cohort, jockeying for political power within the sprawling Saudi family (Abdulaziz fathered a whopping 45 sons) and gaining it largely by virtue of the fact that they were all really interested in politics where most of Abdulaziz’s sons were happy to live the high life and not worry about such things. They gained some authority when the kingdom’s third king, Faisal b. Abdulaziz (d. 1975), who was not himself a Sudairi, relied on their backing to oust Saud b. Abdulaziz, the kingdom’s second king, in 1964. When Fahd became king in 1982 it was a sign that the seven had really arrived. By this point Sultan was Defense Minister, Abdul Rahman was Deputy Defense Minister, Nayef was Interior Minister, Salman was Governor of Riyadh, and Ahmed was Deputy Interior Minister (Turki got in hot water for marrying the wrong lady and maybe flirting with reformers so he left the country for a couple of decades and was out of the picture). Plus by this point some of their sons were old enough to start assuming important second- and third-order positions inside the kingdom. So these guys really had a grip on things.

The fly in the ointment for the Seven was Fahd’s crown prince, Abdullah. Abdullah wasn’t a Sudairi and doesn’t seem to have cared all that much for them. Fahd’s stroke in 1995, which left Abdullah basically in charge of the kingdom, probably impacted the Sudairis’ plans for further consolidation. Then Abdullah created the Allegiance Council in 2007, two years after he finally became king, with the role of managing the succession. It was a way of putting succession choices in the control of the whole Saudi family (membership is composed of Abdulaziz’s surviving sons plus selected sons of Abdulaziz’s deceased sons) so that the process wouldn’t be hijacked by any one faction of princes, but in practice the council doesn’t seem to do much apart from rubber stamping the king’s selections. Abdullah did appoint Sultan as his crown prince, but he probably figured that the ill Sultan would die before he did, which happened in 2011. Nayef assumed the post but then he died in 2012 (this is the kind of thing that happens when nearly everybody in your ruling cohort is in his 70s), so then Salman took the job. Why Abdullah kept appointing Sudairis as his crown princes if he didn’t care for their faction is beyond me, but maybe he kept figuring that they would die before him and so appointing them was a no-risk way to keep the faction happy. Then Salman, despite all the rumors of his poor health, wrecked the plan by actually managing to outlive Abdullah, so the Sudairis once again hold the top job in the kingdom.

Muqrin entered the picture as the Deputy Crown Prince, appointed by Abdullah and approved by the Allegiance Council, in 2013, and it’s possible that he represented Abdullah’s real choice of successor (Salman has probably outlived everyone’s expectations from back when he was named Crown Prince in 2012). Muqrin isn’t a Sudairi and in fact his mother was a Yemeni, which you can imagine might be held against him by a rival Saudi prince. Salman promoted him to Crown Prince when he succeeded Abdullah in January, but it’s likely that Muqrin has been on borrowed time these past three months. Salman started moving out potential Sudairi rivals when he appointed his first cabinet, in which two of Abdullah’s sons lost their posts as governors of Riyadh and Mecca. Today’s move gets Muqrin out of the way (isolating another of Abdullah’s sons, Mutaib, the powerful head of the kingdom’s national guard and thought to have been allied with Muqrin) and paves the way for a Sudairi, Muhammad b. Nayef, to succeed Salman and become the first of Abdulaziz’s grandsons to rule the kingdom.

Plus it puts Salman’s much younger (early-30s at the oldest) son Muhammad, obviously another Sudairi, in place as the second in line for the throne. And hey, Sudairi group fidelity may be strong, but if I were Muhammad b. Nayef I’d probably have one eye always looking over my shoulder at the son of King Salman waiting in line behind me.

The less splashy Foreign Ministry change, which may genuinely have come at Saud al-Faisal’s request (he’s in his mid to late 70s and has been the Saudi FM for almost 40 freaking years) also moves out a non-Sudairi prince (Saud is the son of former King Faisal) in favor of a non-royal, Adel al-Jubeir, who got his first major gig as Bandar b. Sultan’s assistant when Bandar (another Sudairi) was the Saudi Ambassador to the US. So he’s presumably a loyal Sudairi acolyte.

Again, it’s probably futile to read too much into the inscrutable intra-family politics of the Sauds, although I’ve just spent about an hour doing precisely that so you have to ask what’s wrong with me, really. The official story is that Muqrin asked to be relieved (but come on, really?), but the unofficial-official version is that he was canned for internally opposing the Yemen campaign, and it could be just as simple as that. Either way, there are undoubtedly some interesting doings transpiring in Riyadh, definitely worth watching.


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